The Supreme Court today announced that it will hear several cases involving the accommodation for religious nonprofits seeking to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage requirement. This is not a surprise; as People For the American Way Foundation wrote in its Supreme Court 2015-2016 Term Preview:
Under the accommodation, the employers simply tell the insurer or the federal government of their objection, at which point the insurer must offer the coverage separately to employees who want it. This way, the employees can get the coverage without their employers having to contract, arrange, or pay for it. But some religious nonprofits assert that even the accommodation violates their religious liberty under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Under RFRA, no federal law imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise can be sustained unless it is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government purpose.
The list of circuit courts that have roundly rejected this argument is long: The DC Circuit, the Second Circuit, Third Circuit, the Fifth Circuit, the Sixth Circuit, the Seventh Circuit, and the Tenth Circuit. But in September 2015, the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of the nonprofits and found the accommodation violated RFRA. Now that there is a circuit split, it seems likely that the Supreme Court will take up the issue via the appeals from one or more of these circuit decisions.
The premise of those challenging the accommodation is a severe distortion of RFRA and of the very concept of religious liberty set forth by the Court’s hard-right conservatives in the 5-4 ruling in Hobby Lobby. That law was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1993 as a means to protect the free exercise of religion. But conservative ideologues have sought to transform RFRA from a shield into a sword, one that they can use to violate the rights of third parties. The right wing’s enthusiastic embrace of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis shows just how far they want to extend the reasoning of Hobby Lobby.
Here, the conservatives argue that filling out a form so that insurance companies can know about their legal obligations to provide certain coverage is a substantial burden on the exercise of their religion. That strained reasoning is a cynical use of religion to deprive women of needed healthcare, an effort to force women employees to live by their employers’ religious strictures rather than their own. But what the Supreme Court said about the First Amendment in a 1985 case called Estate of Thornton v. Caldor is equally true of RFRA:
The First Amendment . . . gives no one the right to insist that in pursuit of their own interests others must conform their conduct to his own religious necessities. [quoting from a lower court opinion by Judge Learned Hand]
Justice Kennedy, who voted with the Hobby Lobby majority, is likely to be the deciding vote in this case. His concurrence in Hobby Lobby hinted that he might not go as far as his fellow conservatives in granting people the latitude to use RFRA to deprive others of their rights:
Among the reasons the United States is so open, so tolerant, and so free is that no person may be restricted or demeaned by government in exercising his or her religion. Yet neither may that same exercise unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling. In these cases [involving for-profit employers] the means to reconcile those two priorities are at hand in the existing accommodation the Government has designed, identified, and used for circumstances closely parallel to those presented here [the accommodation for religious non-profits].
Given the circuit split on the accommodation for religious nonprofits, the Supreme Court had little choice but to take this issue on. They do have a choice, however, in how they rule. Hopefully, a majority of justices will take the first step in restoring RFRA to the law it was intended to be.
The Tenth Circuit today released its opinion in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell, becoming the latest federal appellate court to reject the claim that the Obama Administration’s contraception coverage accommodation for religious nonprofits violates their religious liberty.
This is the latest effort by the far right to redefine “religious liberty” and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to use as a sword to deprive third parties of their legal rights. Under RFRA, no federal law imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise can be sustained unless it is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government purpose.
The Tenth Circuit now joins the DC Circuit, the Third Circuit, the Fifth Circuit, and the Seventh Circuit in rejecting this attack on the accommodation for religious nonprofits. Notably, all these decisions came after the Supreme Court rewrote the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in the Hobby Lobby case, giving certain for-profit corporations and their owners greater latitude to exempt themselves from laws they find personally offensive. (The Sixth Circuit also reached the same conclusion, but it is still in the process of reconsidering it to make sure it is consistent with Hobby Lobby.)
The Obama Administration created a process whereby religious nonprofits can exempt themselves from the federal requirement that its employees have certain contraception healthcare coverage: Fill out a form (or now, just send a letter) and let the Department of Health and Human Services know that you won’t be providing it and say who your insurance carrier is, so that officials can inform them of their legal requirements to provide the coverage. The religious right has called even this accommodation a violation of the religious liberty rights of nonprofits, saying it makes them complicit in the provision of contraception that violates their religious beliefs.
The Tenth Circuit concluded that the accommodation does not substantially burden Plaintiffs’ religious exercise and therefore does not violate RFRA. The court stated:
The accommodation relieves Plaintiffs from complying with the Mandate and guarantees they will not have to provide, pay for, or facilitate contraceptive coverage. Plaintiffs do not “trigger” or otherwise cause contraceptive coverage because federal law, not the act of opting out, entitles plan participants and beneficiaries to coverage. Although Plaintiffs allege the administrative tasks required to opt out of the Mandate make them complicit in the overall delivery scheme, opting out instead relieves them from complicity.
The court does not question the sincerity of the plaintiffs’ assertion that filling out the form violates their religious beliefs. But it also pointed out that under RFRA, whether a burden is substantial is a legal question that is up to the court, not the plaintiff, to answer:
If plaintiffs could assert and establish that a burden is “substantial” without any possibility of judicial scrutiny, the word “substantial” would become wholly devoid of independent meaning. Furthermore, accepting any burden alleged by Plaintiffs as “substantial” would improperly conflate the determination that a religious belief is sincerely held with the determination that a law or policy substantially burdens religious exercise. (internal citation removed)
Whether it’s women’s ability to access their legal right to healthcare or same-sex couples’ ability to exercise their constitutional right to marry, imagine the chaos if people could simply exempt themselves from – and severely weaken – laws they disapprove of by citing their personal religious beliefs.
But that is a recipe for a Balkanized society, not a healthy pluralistic democracy. Citing a previous case, the Tenth Circuit states: “Law accommodates religion; it cannot wholly exempt religion from the reach of the law.”
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, told radio host Jan Mickelson on Tuesday that House Speaker John Boehner tried to punish him for bucking House leadership by denying him tickets to see the Supreme Court oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the Affordable Care Act case, but then Chief Justice John Roberts saved the day in the end by finding him a seat.
“He’s also trying to block me from hearing oral arguments before the Supreme Court, on Obamacare, for example, so I went to Chief Justice Roberts and he gave me a couple tickets on his special front bench and we went ahead anyway,” King told Mickelson.
King also repeated his story of being pulled off a diplomatic mission by Boehner at the very last minute, which he later revealed was a congressional delegation to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. King ended up paying for his own ticket and showing up anyway, to the surprise of the delegation’s leader.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is furious at the Supreme Court for its rulings last week rejecting a challenge to the Affordable Care Act and knocking down same-sex marriage bans around the nation. In an interview with Iowa conservative radio host Simon Conway on Friday, Jindal repeated his suggestion that “we just get rid of the Supreme Court,” adding that the “upcoming assault on religious liberty” that he has been warning about “is here.”
“So the Supreme Court’s basically saying words have no meaning, we don’t have to follow the Constitution,” he said. “Simon, I’m always looking for ways to save money. Why don’t we just get rid of the Supreme Court? Chief Roberts is maybe a great politician, but their job isn’t to be politicians, isn’t to be elected officials, their job is to read and apply the Constitution.”
“I’ve been very, very worried about the upcoming assault on religious liberty,” he added. “It is here. If the left, they condone discrimination against Christian florist, business owners and others that don’t want to participate in wedding ceremonies that violate their conscience or religious beliefs.
“If the left were really honest, Simon, they should just repeal the First Amendment to the Constitution. They don’t believe in it, they don’t believe in the freedom of religious liberty, they don’t believe in the Second Amendment, might as well get rid of that while they’re out of it, they might as well try to get rid of the 10th Amendment, they don’t believe in states’ rights.”
He added that the “White House made a mockery of itself” in its celebration of both rulings.
In a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court upheld the use of disparate impact analysis under the Fair Housing Act, which allows fair housing and Civil Rights advocates to show that government actions disproportionately harm affected communities instead of being required to find a “smoking gun” proving that intentional discrimination occurred. The Court also upheld the clear intent of Congress in allocating subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, dismissing a partisan attempt to undermine the law.
“Today’s ruling in the Fair Housing Act case is an important win for fair housing and for equality under the law,” said Michael Keegan, President of People For the American Way Foundation. “The Fair Housing Act was passed into law just days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and it stands as a tribute to his work and legacy. As last week’s murders in Charleston make perfectly clear, our nation’s long struggle with racism is far from over. But not all racism is so easily identified. Today’s decision means we still have a powerful tool to advocate for justice in one of the most critical areas of our nation’s public policy.
“The Court’s ruling in King v. Burwell is unquestionably the correct one, but in a sane court system, there’s no way this case would have made it to the Court, let alone received the support of three Justices. This decision should be a reminder of how much is at stake in our nation’s highest Court, and how critical it is that Americans consider the Supreme Court as we choose our next president.”
In a 6-3 decision this morning, the Supreme Court rejected an attempt by conservative activists to unravel the Affordable Care Act by attacking what was essentially a typo in the law. The court’s decision in King v. Burwell will prevent at least 8 million people from losing their health insurance, so naturally the Right is devastated.
Here are the most panicked reactions from the Right just the first hour following the King decision being handed down:
1. Nothing means anything anymore!
Words don't mean anything. Laws don't mean anything. The law is, apparently, whatever Obama says it is.— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) June 25, 2015
The world has gone mad today And good's bad today, And black's white today, And day's night today... Anything goes! https://t.co/JilYBGKFPg— Michelle Malkin (@michellemalkin) June 25, 2015
2. We’re becoming a banana republic!
I braced for this decision by SCOTUS still shocked....folks country has fundamentally changed...another giant step toward Banana Republic— Charles V Payne (@cvpayne) June 25, 2015
3. Hide your grandparents!
Good luck trying to find a doctor or hospital to treat your grandparents.— toddstarnes (@toddstarnes) June 25, 2015
4. Justice Roberts is a tyrant!
Judicial tyrant Roberts says ObamaCare is "ambiguous." WHAT IS REMOTELY AMBIGUOUS ABOUT "ESTABLISHED BY THE STATE????"— Bryan Fischer (@BryanJFischer) June 25, 2015
5. …who was obviously blackmailed!
Time to question Justice Roberts' decisions. Just like John Boehner, I now believe Justice Roberts has been blackmailed or intimidated.— Wayne Allyn Root (@WayneRoot) June 25, 2015
Honorable mention: The most popular line on conservative Twitter this morning was written not by a professional pundit, but by Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent. We’ll let Glenn Beck share this one:
“We should start calling this law SCOTUS Care,” Justice Scalia— Glenn Beck (@glennbeck) June 25, 2015
Update: The Ben Shapiro quote that we originally included in this post was from 2012. But luckily he still has plenty to say! We've also added Michelle Malkin's insight.
This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.
Some Supreme Court cases are really tough ones, with important, difficult, and complex legal questions about constitutional meaning or statutory interpretation, where justices have to choose between two powerful and compelling arguments. Sometimes the court is called upon to resolve an issue that has divided the circuit courts. Other times there is a lower court ruling so at odds with logic or precedent that it needs to be reviewed and corrected.
And then there's King v. Burwell, the Affordable Care Act subsidies case being argued this week.
Those challenging the law have an extremely weak legal case, there is no split in the lower courts, and there is no clearly wrong lower court ruling that needs to be corrected. This is a meritless case that was ginned up by conservatives seeking to enlist the Supreme Court in their political efforts to destroy the ACA. That at least four justices voted to hear the case is ominous enough. But a victory for the challengers would make it more clear than ever that political considerations are infecting a majority of the court.
Some background: Section 1311 of the ACA directs states to establish health insurance exchanges, creating competitive markets in every state for people to buy affordable insurance no matter where they live. But Congress also recognized that states might choose not do this, so Section 1321 says that in those cases the federal government should set up the exchange instead. The purpose of doing this was to ensure that even if states declined to set up an exchange pursuant to Section 1311, fully functional stand-ins would exist. This is essential to the structure of the law: The financial model relies on competitive markets with affordable insurance being available in every state.
To ensure affordability, the law also establishes subsidies for people below a certain income level to make sure they can buy insurance, which is necessary for the entire structure of the ACA to work. One subsection of the law establishes some key definitions, including an "eligible taxpayer" who is entitled to these subsidies, and the main criterion is income level. Try as you might, you won't find anything there saying that eligibility is at all tied to where someone lives.
A separate subsection says how to calculate the amount of the subsidy. Bizarrely, the conservative opponents of the ACA say that it is here that Congress chose to establish an enormously important additional eligibility criterion that, for some reason, they didn't put in the eligibility section: You have to live in a state that has set up its own exchange, rather than in one where the state has allowed the federal government to set it up instead.
This strange interpretation of the ACA depends on a deliberate misunderstanding of the subsidy provision's stating that the amount is based on the monthly premiums for a policy purchased through an exchange "established by the state under [section] 1311" of the ACA. But to interpret this provision the way the anti-Obamacare activists do, we'd have to deliberately blind ourselves to how it clearly fits with the ACA as a whole.
So we're supposed to pretend that Congress didn't specifically empower the federal government to set up fully functional stand-ins for state exchanges in states that declined to create them. And we're supposed to think that Congress hid a critically important criterion for subsidy eligibility in a section on calculating the subsidy amount. And we're supposed to accept that Congress intended to undercut the financial viability of the law and thwart its central purpose of providing affordable health care to all. As D.C. Circuit Judge Harry Edwards wrote, "[i]t is inconceivable that Congress intended to give States the power to cause the ACA to crumble."
No one could possibly believe that. You can't possibly look at the text of the Affordable Care Act and interpret it in the way that its enemies have conjured up.
And as journalists like Glenn Kessler have pointed out, congressional Republicans who today insist that Congress intended for subsidy eligibility to depend on what state you live in were saying nothing of the sort when the law was being debated. Their statements at the time show they assumed subsidies would be available nationwide.
It is also clear that state legislators -- regardless of party -- deciding whether to set up their own exchanges never contemplated the possibility that choosing to let the federal government do it would deny much-needed subsidies to people in their state. In fact, that point is made quite effectively in an amicus brief authored by the Constitutional Accountability Center on behalf of members of Congress and state legislatures.
When this nonsensical lawsuit was heard at the Fourth Circuit, it was rejected by a unanimous panel of judges. In his concurring opinion, Judge Andre Davis wrote:
What [the ACA opponents] may not do is rely on our help to deny to millions of Americans desperately-needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction of a federal statute whose manifest purpose, as revealed by the wholeness and coherence of its text and structure, could not be more clear.
Yet when the ACA opponents appealed to the Supreme Court, at least four justices (the minimum required to grant certiorari) agreed to hear the case.
It would be nice to believe that the only reason was to issue a 9-0 ruling slapping down this lawsuit and condemning those who would abuse the court system by seeking to enlist federal judges in their political fights. Unfortunately, this is the Roberts court, a court with a history of bending the rules, twisting the law, and doing whatever it takes to get to an outcome beneficial to conservative and corporate interests. With cases like Citizens United, Hobby Lobby, Ledbetter, Shelby County, and so many others, a narrow 5-4 majority has made opponents of the Affordable Care Act think they could gin up a meritless case and carry the day.
If the Roberts Court chooses to sabotage millions of Americans' access to health care, the consequences will be catastrophic for many everyday people, and possibly fatal to some. While there may be Americans who weren't paying attention to some of the wrongly decided cases noted above, it is hard to imagine any American missing this one -- and not knowing exactly who to blame.
Yesterday PFAW Foundation joined the National Women’s Law Center, the law firm Hogan Lovells, and close to 70 other organizations in submitting an amicus brief in King v. Burwell, the pending Supreme Court case on tax subsidies for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The brief notes that a decision in favor of those challenging the subsidies would threaten a central goal of the law: making access to health insurance possible for millions of people across the country.
The ramifications of a wrong decision in this case could be enormous, causing serious harm in the lives of people now relying on health insurance through the ACA. If the core tax subsidy provision were to be struck down, the brief points out, women of color would be especially hard-hit:
These tax credits are critical. Over 9 million women, who would otherwise go without affordable health insurance, are eligible to benefit from them, including a disproportionate number of women of color.
…The tax credits are not only critical to women’s health; they are critical to the ACA’s continued viability. Congress encouraged participation in the insurance market primarily through the careful interrelation of the individual responsibility provision, market reforms, and tax-credit provisions. Eliminate the tax credits, and the system unravels.
The amicus brief highlights the stories of many real women who depend on the tax credits to access needed health care:
Marilyn Schramm, 63, is a 26-year cancer survivor from Austin, Texas. She endured treatment for cervical cancer in her thirties and has experienced life-long complications from that treatment that have required surgeries since then. Marilyn retired several years ago. When her COBRA rights were exhausted, Marilyn was forced to go without insurance for six months because of her “preexisting conditions.” But in January 2014, Marilyn could finally purchase insurance on the federally-facilitated Exchange in Texas, with at least half of her premium covered by the ACA’s tax credits.
Marilyn has now been diagnosed with colon cancer; following surgery, she began chemotherapy this month. Her coverage depends on the ACA’s prohibition on excluding those with pre-existing conditions, and on its premium tax credits: With her modest retirement income, Marilyn is unsure whether or how she could pay her insurance premium without the tax credits.
As we have noted before, this case is a blatantly political attack intended to do serious damage to the Affordable Care Act. The millions of women and men across the country who rely on the ACA in order to access health care ranging from preventative screenings to cancer treatments deserve far better.
To: Interested Parties
From: Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel, People For the American Way
Date: September 25, 2014
Subject: PFAW Foundation’s Supreme Court 2014-2015 Term Preview
The beginning of a new Supreme Court term has become a time to worry, “What’s next?” In the past two terms alone, often in 5-4 decisions, the Roberts Court has severely undermined the Voting Rights Act, continued its assault on the American people’s efforts to limit money in politics, strengthened the hand of employers who discriminate, significantly eroded church-state separation, discovered religious rights for for-profit corporations seeking to deny female employees needed contraception coverage, undercut unions, and found ways to help large corporations bypass laws designed to limit their power over small businesses and ordinary people.
As bad as the Roberts Court has been, there have also been some good decisions in the most recent terms. For instance, the Court struck down the odious Defense of Marriage Act, upheld the EPA's general authority to issue regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and unanimously recognized our Fourth Amendment right to privacy concerning our smart phones.
The 2014-2015 Term is set to begin on October 6, the traditional First Monday in October, and the Court will be hearing a number of important cases. At the same time, perhaps half the cases it will hear this term have not been determined or announced, and there is substantial speculation on whether it will hear cases on several high-profile issues, marriage equality most prominent among them. Below is a summary of some of the major cases the Court may hear this term, along with cases already scheduled that we will be following.
CASES THAT THE COURT MIGHT HEAR
If the Court accepts a marriage equality case, it will obviously become the blockbuster case of the term (and perhaps the decade). The Court has already been asked to hear appeals of pro-equality rulings by three circuit courts: From the Tenth Circuit are Herbert v. Kitchen (Utah) and Smith v. Bishop (Oklahoma). From the Fourth Circuit are Rainey v. Bostic, Schaefer v. Bostic, and McQuigg v. Bostic (all Virginia). From the Seventh Circuit are Bogan v. Baskin (Indiana) and Walker v. Wolf (Wisconsin). While states and government officials who lost in the lower courts are filing the appeals, the couples who won the cases are also urging the Court to hear the appeals, so there can finally be a national resolution to the issue.
Should one of the remaining circuit courts uphold a state marriage ban, the resulting split among circuits on such a major constitutional issue would almost guarantee review by the Supreme Court. But if every circuit continues to rule the same way, the Justices might decide to let the issue be resolved there.
Conservatives like Scalia and Thomas, who have in case after case shown their hostility to LGBT equality but may be unsure of how Kennedy would vote, might not be willing to risk a Supreme Court precedent that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. From their perspective, if they can’t change the outcome around the country, why make it worse by adding a jurisprudential nightmare from the nation’s highest court that would taint American law for decades to come?
For Justices likely to recognize the constitutional right to marriage equality, the calculation might be different. They, too, not knowing Kennedy’s position, might not want to risk a 5-4 ruling in the “wrong” direction on a major constitutional and societal issue. But even if they could be certain of being in the majority, they might find advantages to having the Court stay out. Justice Ginsburg, for instance, has suggested publicly that Roe v. Wade went “too far, too fast,” provoking a backlash that could otherwise have been avoided. If the legal question of marriage equality is being decided rightly in all the circuit courts, some Justices might rather leave well enough alone. In fact, Justice Ginsburg told a group of law students in mid-September that without a circuit split, she saw “no urgency” for the Court to take up the issue now, although she added that she expects the Court to take it up “sooner or later.”
Should the Court grant cert on one or more of the appeals, it could answer a number of critically important questions in addition to whether states can prohibit same-sex couples from marrying.
Exactly which constitutional right do the bans violate? While numerous courts have ruled in favor of same-sex couples, they have been anything but unanimous in their reasoning: Some have suggested that the bans violate the Due Process Clause, because the longstanding, fundamental right to marry includes the right to marry someone of the same sex. Other judges indicate that the bans violate the Equal Protection Clause because they deny the right to marry based on the sex of the people seeking to get married. Still others suggest that the bans violate the Equal Protection Clause because they discriminate against gays and lesbians. While the different legal rationales would all have the same immediate result (marriage equality), they could create very different legal precedents and have very different impacts down the line as lower courts consider other types of discrimination, whether aimed at gays and lesbians, at transgender people, or at others.
A Supreme Court ruling might decide what level of scrutiny the Equal Protection Clause requires for laws that discriminate against gay people, an issue not squarely faced in previous cases. Most government classifications are subject to – and easily pass – “rational basis” scrutiny by the courts: The law is constitutional as long as it’s rationally related to some legitimate government interest. (The Court has said that animus against gays and lesbians is not a legitimate purpose, which in the past has let it bypass the question as to whether anti-gay laws warrant more scrutiny from the courts.)
But a few types of laws trigger heightened Equal Protection scrutiny. Sex-based classifications are subject to intermediate scrutiny: They must be substantially related to an important government interest. Race-based classifications are generally subject to strict scrutiny, the highest level: They must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest. If the Court rules that laws discriminating against lesbians and gays warrant some level of heightened scrutiny, that would have an enormous impact nationwide on all kinds of laws that discriminate against lesbians and gays, not just marriage bans.
The Court’s discussion of this issue could also shed light on whether eliminating private discrimination against LGBT people is (in the Court’s eyes) a compelling government interest. This could have an enormous impact as courts consider right wing challenges to anti-discrimination laws on the basis of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act or state-law analogs.
Opponents of the Affordable Care Act strategically launched lawsuits in four different circuits challenging federal subsidies for millions of Americans buying health insurance on federally-run exchanges. The circuits were apparently selected to maximize the possibility of a circuit split, which in turn would maximize the likelihood of getting the case heard by the Roberts Court, which (they hope) would deliver a crippling blow to Obamacare. Decisions have been reached in two of the circuits, although one has since been vacated.
Section 1311 of the ACA says states should set up insurance exchanges, while Section 1321 of the Act says the federal government can set one up if a state doesn't. Subsidies are available for less well-off people getting health insurance through an exchange, based on the amount the person pays for the insurance s/he is enrolled in through an exchange "established by the state under [section] 1311" of the ACA. The law’s opponents hope to have the Supreme Court rule that Congress intended for subsidies to be unavailable to Americans purchasing insurance through the federally-established exchanges that the law calls for in cases where the state does not step in. In other words, the argument is that Congress intended to undercut the financial viability of the law and thwart its central purpose.
A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit rejected this wild claim in King v. Burwell. However, two far right judges on the D.C. Circuit formed a majority in a three-judge panel ruling actually agreeing with the Obama care opponents in Halbig v. Burwell. Dissenting Judge Harry Edwards recognized the lawsuit as a “not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” noting that “[i]t is inconceivable that Congress intended to give States the power to cause the ACA to crumble.” The full D.C. Circuit subsequently vacated the ruling and will consider the issue en banc, and most observers expect a ruling more like the Fourth Circuit’s.
But even if that happens, there are still lawsuits percolating in Indiana (Seventh Circuit) and Oklahoma (Tenth Circuit), so the hoped-for circuit split may yet occur. If it does, the Roberts Court is almost certain to consider the issue. While the case is transparently political and legally weak, that did not stop the conservative Justices when it came to the Commerce Clause challenge to the individual mandate.
The Roberts Court may hear one or more cases involving religious nonprofits that oppose the ACA’s contraception coverage requirement, in a sequel to Hobby Lobby v. Burwell. In that case, the Roberts Court gave certain for-profit corporations religious liberty rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), then completely rewrote the law to give the chain store the right to “exercise” its religion by refusing to comply with the ACA’s contraception coverage requirement.
Under RFRA, a federal law cannot impose a substantial burden on a person’s religious exercise unless it is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and it is the least restrictive means of doing so. In Hobby Lobby, the Roberts Court concluded that the corporation and its owners suffered a “substantial” burden” on their religious exercise because the owners were offended by the contraception coverage requirement, even though it did not restrict or burden what they may believe or do. The majority also concluded that the law was not the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s interest in women’s health, because the Administration offers religious nonprofits an accommodation: They are exempt if they simply sign a form certifying that they are a religious nonprofit that objects to the provision of contraceptive services, and provide a copy of that form to their insurance issuer or third-party administrator, which then has the responsibility to pay for and provide the coverage. (Churches, in contrast, are wholly exempt.) The Roberts Court concluded that the federal government can make this accommodation available to for-profit corporations, meaning the coverage requirement is not the least restrictive means of achieving the ACA’s goal.
But three days later, the Court issued a temporary injunction against enforcing even this accommodation against Wheaton College, a non-profit religious institution that argued that the accommodation substantially burdens its religious freedom. This prompted a furious dissent from the three women Justices. Although the merits of the case are still being argued before a lower federal court, this was an ominous sign of how the Roberts Court will address the legal question when it inevitably reaches the high court.
Another high-profile case (or one similar to it) that may reach the Court involves Little Sisters of the Poor. This religious nonprofit organization, too, has a religious objection to the accommodation that was designed to meet its religious objections, arguing that the form is like a permission slip that would trigger contraception coverage, making the nuns complicit in sin. However, the Little Sisters’ insurer is classified as a “church plan,” which is actually exempt from the ACA requirement. So regardless of whether the Little Sisters signed the form, their employees would still not have the contraception coverage. Nevertheless, last January, while its RFRA suit against the contraception coverage provision was before the Tenth Circuit (where it is still pending), the Supreme Court enjoined the federal government from enforcing the law until a final resolution on the merits.
It seems likely that there will be a request that this issue be considered by the Supreme Court at some point this term, either through one of these cases or one similar to them.
CASES CURRENTLY BEFORE THE COURT
EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION AND WORKERS’ RIGHTS
The Supreme Court is to decide to what extent employers can treat pregnant workers temporarily unable to work differently from other workers temporarily unable to work.
This case involves Peggy Young, a pregnant employee of UPS with temporary medical restrictions on how much she could safely lift. UPS did not make any accommodations for her, such as temporary alternative work. As a result, she spent several months on unpaid leave, during which she lost her medical coverage.
In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that discriminating against employees who are pregnant was not sex discrimination under Title VII. Congress corrected that interpretation of the law in 1978 with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which has two relevant provisions. First, it specifies that sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.
The second provision explains how to apply that general principle: It says that women affected by pregnancy “shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” This establishes a basis of comparison. So while a typical sex discrimination case looks at how a female plaintiff is treated in comparison to similarly situated men, a PDA case looks at how she is treated in comparison to non-pregnant workers with similar ability (or inability) to work.
UPS’s collective bargaining contract calls for UPS to accommodate temporarily disabled employees if the disability is due to an on-the-job injury, or if they have lost their DOT certification to drive. UPS also accommodates employees who have a permanent impairment under the Americans With Disabilities Act. UPS says its policy is “pregnancy-blind:” They claim they are treating Young the same way they’d treat a non-pregnant employee whose injury doesn’t fit any of the above conditions.
But Young argues that isn’t the proper analysis under the PDA. She points out that UPS would have made an accommodation for someone “similar in their ability or inability to work” to her if they were in one of those three categories. So, she concludes, the plain text of the PDA requires UPS to accommodate her, as well.
The Supreme Court is to decide if employers can deny overtime pay to employees at “customer fulfillment” distribution centers for the time they spend waiting for mandatory security screenings.
This is a class-action lawsuit brought by Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro, two former employees of Integrity Staffing Solutions, which provides workers to work in the warehouses of companies like Amazon.com. At the end of the shift, the company requires every employee to go through a security check before they leave the facility to make sure they aren’t stealing the merchandise. The employees wait as long as 25 minutes to be searched. Busk and Castro claim that they should have been paid overtime for this time under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), as should all current employees, as well.
FLSA requires overtime pay when a covered employee works more than 40 hours in a workweek. In 1947, Congress helped define what counts as “work” by passing the Portal-to-Portal Act (PPA), which says that FLSA’s overtime requirement doesn’t apply to activities that are “preliminary” or “postliminary” to an employee’s primary job responsibilities. In a 1956 case called Steiner v. Mitchell, the Supreme Court interpreted the PPA as requiring overtime only for tasks that are an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workman are employed.”
Busk and Castro say that any activity required by and beneﬁtting the employer (such as the security searches) are part of the actual job, not “postliminary” to it, so they count as time at work under FLSA and should generate overtime pay. They get support from an amicus brief submitted by the National Employment Lawyers Association, which details how loss-prevention activities have become integrated into the modern retail work routine, making searches like those at issue here part of an employee’s principal activities.
The workers won at the Ninth Circuit, but the court used different reasoning: that the searches are “postliminary” (so the Portal-to-Portal Act applies), but that they are an “integral and indispensable part” of the workers’ principal activities and therefore subject to overtime pay. Integrity (supported by an amicus brief from the Obama Administration) asserts that the searches are “postliminary” to work, are not an “integral and indispensable part” of the employees’ principal activities and, therefore, don’t trigger the overtime requirement.
Part of the company’s argument seems to be a results-based pitch to a corporate-friendly Court: In its certiorari petition urging the Justices to hear its appeal, Integrity Staffing wrote that since the Ninth Circuit ruling, “plaintiffs’ lawyers have brought nationwide class actions against a number of major employers—including Apple, Amazon.com, and CVS—seeking back pay (plus overtime and penalties) for time spent in security screenings.” Notice that it isn’t employees who are suing, but “plaintiffs’ lawyers,” a framing that is red meat for right-wing ideologues. This argument also seems to have less to do with discerning congressional intent and more to do with protecting large corporations.
The Supreme Court is to decide if employers can escape liability for illegal discrimination by arguing that the EEOC failed to make a sufficiently good-faith attempt to reach a settlement with the employer.
Mach Mining has never hired a woman for a mining position. A woman who had been turned down several times for a coal mining job filed a sex discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a step that Title VII requires before filing a lawsuit. EEOC looked into the allegation, found it had merit, and – again, as required by Title VII – sought to negotiate an end to the alleged sex discrimination “by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion” before suing. After several months without success, the EEOC notified the company that it felt further efforts would be futile and initiated a lawsuit. Mach Mining says the case should be dismissed on the grounds that the EEOC didn’t make a good-faith conciliation effort. In response, the EEOC says Title VII doesn’t allow such a defense.
While several other circuits have ruled otherwise, the Seventh Circuit in this case concluded that Title VII cannot be interpreted to allow courts to inquire into the adequacy of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts. For one thing, Title VII has no express provision for an affirmative defense based on a defect in the EEOC’s conciliation’s efforts. It also calls for the EEOC to “endeavor” to end the discrimination through “informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion.” If it can’t reach a result “acceptable to the Commission,” it can sue. The Seventh Circuit interpreted this as giving the EEOC great deference.
The court also noted that Title VII makes the process confidential, with penalties for making the information public without the consent of everyone concerned. That could prevent the EEOC from showing the court the evidence that it had sought to conciliate in good faith. It seems unlikely that Congress wrote Title VII to require the EEOC to defend its conciliation efforts in court but made its ability to do so dependent on the permission of the employer being sued. The court also concluded that there would be no meaningful standard of review. For instance, just how hard should the agency pursue an agreement?
A Supreme Court ruling for the employer could give employers a significant tool to stymie legitimate lawsuits against unlawful employment discrimination. As the Seventh Circuit wrote:
Simply put, the conciliation defense tempts employers to turn what was meant to be an informal negotiation into the subject of endless disputes over whether the EEOC did enough before going to court. Such disputes impose significant costs on both sides, as well as on the court, and to what end?
All the employer should legitimately hope to gain is some unspecified quantum of additional efforts at conciliation by the EEOC. The result of such a defense, as we have said in a closely related context, is to “protract and complicate Title VII litigation, and with little or no offsetting benefit.”
The Supreme Court is to address whether a state prison’s prohibiting a Muslim prisoner from growing a half-inch beard violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
This case originated with a handwritten request to the Supreme Court from Gregory Holt (aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad), a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas, to hear his case. He states that his religious beliefs require him to have a beard, and he seeks to grow a half-inch beard. The state Department of Corrections prohibits beards generally, but allows quarter-inch beards grown for medical reasons. Muhammad sees his request as a compromise (since his religious beliefs really would have him grow it much longer) that has been accepted in prisons elsewhere.
Since he is in a state prison, Muhammad’s case is governed by a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA. Passed unanimously by Congress in 2000, RLUIPA requires prisons accepting federal funds to give greater religious liberty protections to inmates than is required by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. Similar to the better-known Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was at issue in Hobby Lobby, RLUIPA is triggered when the government imposes a “substantial burden on the religious exercise” of a person confined to an institution. When that happens, the action can be upheld only if the government can demonstrate that the burden: “(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
The state argues that the no-beard policy furthers the compelling government interests in prison safety and security, and that the proposed half-inch accommodation would not be as effective as the no-beard rule in achieving those purposes. For instance, they provide the opinions of penal experts that prisoners could use the beards to hide contraband, and that escaped prisoners could too easily and quickly change their appearance simply by shaving. Muhammad (now represented by counsel) argues that the lower courts, which ruled against him, did not provide the strict scrutiny of the state’s arguments that is required by RLUIPA.
In Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court significantly rewrote RFRA, watering down the “substantial burden” requirement and applying the religious liberty law to for-profit corporations. Neither factor is relevant to this case, meaning the Court could rule in favor of Muhammad without rewriting the law. But the Roberts Court is known for playing the “long game.” Even if the Court rules unanimously for Muhammad, they may not all agree on the reasoning: The conservatives could write an opinion designed to be cited in future RFRA litigation strengthening the hands of those on the right who would reshape RFRA from a shield against government oppression into a sword.
The Supreme Court is to address whether Alabama engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering when it drew new state House and Senate district lines that channeled large numbers of African Americans into districts that were already majority-minority.
The GOP-controlled Alabama state legislature enacted a redistricting plan that transferred a significant portion of the black population that had previously been in majority-white districts into districts that were already majority-black. In so doing, the legislature was seeking to achieve certain percentages of black voters in the majority-black districts. At issue is whether legislators engaged in an unconstitutional effort to separate voters by race, or whether they followed traditional redistricting criteria in a way that was necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
Due to population shifts, majority-black districts established after the 2000 Census lost population and had to be redrawn after the 2010 Census to bring in new people. In some cases, the population loss was disproportionately white, meaning that a significantly higher percentage of the remaining population was African American than before. In redrawing the lines while keeping the same number of majority-black districts, the legislature made two decisions that led to what some call “bleaching” – drawing lines so that large numbers of African Americans in majority-white districts would be redistricted into supermajority-black districts, and diminishing African Americans’ political influence in much of the state.
First, they chose to reduce the permissible population difference between districts from 10% (the 2000 standard) to 2%. To achieve district populations that close to each other, many more people would have to be drawn into the modified black-majority districts than would otherwise have been necessary. That huge numbers of those people would be blacks removed from majority-white districts was determined by the second decision: Ostensibly to comply with the requirement under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (this was before Shelby County) that new lines not lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise, the African American percentages in the redrawn majority-minority districts should be at least whatever they had become in 2010.
This reapportionment was upheld by a divided three-judge federal district court. The majority concluded that race was not the predominant factor in drawing the redistricting boundaries, so that they need not be analyzed under strict scrutiny as in the 1993 Shaw v. Reno case. The majority also concluded that even if strict scrutiny applied, the legislative boundaries were narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling purpose of compliance with the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which applied at the time. The plaintiffs in this case – the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and state Democrats – challenge those conclusions, arguing that legislators had misinterpreted Section 5, that race was impermissibly the overriding criterion used by legislators in drawing lines, and that the redistricting plan violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
FREE SPEECH AND SIGN REGULATIONS
The Supreme Court will hear a church’s Free Speech challenge to city rules regulating the size and placement of various types of signs, which affect the signs it puts up to direct people to its church services.
This case was brought by a small church (25-30 adult members) in Arizona that places signs up to invite people to its weekly services and inform them where they are being held. Good News Church and its pastor Clyde Reed are urging the Court to strike down the town of Gilbert’s sign ordinance, which treats some signs (such as directional signs for events, like a fair or, in this case, a church service) differently from others (like political, real estate, or ideological signs). The different types of signs have different rules on how large they can be, and where and when they can be posted. Good News Church argues the law is an unconstitutional content-based infringement of its First Amendment rights. The lower court had upheld it as content-neutral.
Gilbert regulations generally require a permit before posting a sign, with a number of exceptions that can be posted without a permit. These exceptions (each with specific size, number, and placement rules) include construction signs, open house signs, parking signs, building identification signs, garage sale signs, street address signs, and restaurant menu signs. The church devotes much of its focus to three of the exceptions:
The church has signs in the first category to tell people about their weekly church services in the space they rent. The maximum size is smaller than political and ideological signs, fewer can be posted, and they cannot stay up nearly as long. Represented by the far-right Alliance Defending Freedom, Good News Church argues that the city is violating its First Amendment rights by applying different rules to different types of noncommercial signs based on their content. According to the church, any classification based on what a sign says is content-based and therefore subject to the highest level of scrutiny. And if the law’s purpose is, say, to promote traffic safety or aesthetics, then what difference should it make if the sign is for a church service, political candidate, or particular ideology?
A divided panel of the Ninth Amendment disagreed, ruling against the church. It said the distinctions among different types of signs are content-neutral (and thus subject to a somewhat lower level of scrutiny) because Gilbert’s interests in regulating temporary signs are unrelated to the specific content or message of the sign. Each exemption is based on objective criteria related not to the sign’s message, but to the reason for the exemption (such as need for communication about elections, or the need to let event sponsors inform people how to get to the event).
HOLDING FRAUDULENT CORPORATIONS ACCOUNTABLE
The Court is to decide whether the clock stops on a deadline to sue for securities fraud when someone files a class action suit.
This case relates to a key 1974 precedent called American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, where the Supreme Court ruled that the filing of a class action lawsuit stops the clock (“tolls” in legal parlance) on the statute of limitations on filing federal antitrust claims for all potential members of the class, including those who are not actively involved with or even aware of the class action lawsuit. So if a court then doesn’t certify the class for some reason or dismisses its claims, but makes that decision after the statute of limitations has passed, those who would have been included in the class have not lost their opportunity to have their day in court just because they hadn’t made an individual filing in the case.
The current case relates to the financial meltdown of the 2000s and involves federal laws in the Securities Act of 1933 prohibiting sellers of securities from misleading investors. The law has two key time limits: (1) You generally have one year to file a lawsuit, and that can be a year after the untrue or misleading statement is made or discovered. (2) But there is an additional limit, one that restricts just how long after the fact you have to discover the wrongdoing: “In no event shall any such action be brought … more than three years after the security was bona fide offered to the public [or, depending on which section of the law is involved] more than three years after the sale.” The Second Circuit concluded that the American Pipe rule did not apply to this statute.
One of the great benefits of class action litigation is that it protects the rights of people who cannot afford to themselves engage in litigation and may not even realize they have been wronged. It also vastly enhances our society’s ability to hold large corporations responsible when they violate people’s rights. The rule from American Pipe has served that purpose well. But in other contexts, the Roberts Court has significantly undercut the ability of Americans to utilize class actions to protect their rights. If the Court rules that American Pipe doesn’t apply in the securities fraud context, it will be important to see if its reasoning also undercuts American Pipe as a precedent in other contexts.
The Court is to address what investors need to prove to hold companies accountable for material misstatements in investment material.
When responding to a public offering of company shares, investors may rely on a company’s registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933, investors can sue if that statement “contained an untrue statement of a material fact or omitted to state a material fact [that was] necessary to make the statements therein not misleading.” This case asks what investors need to prove if the purportedly “untrue statement” was the company’s opinion that it wasn’t breaking the law.
Omnicare is the nation’s largest provider of pharmaceutical care for the elderly and other residents of long-term care facilities. In Omnicare’s registration statement, it said that “we believe” that its financial relationships with pharmaceutical manufacturers were legal. The investors here claim that some of those deals constituted unlawful kickbacks. The question is whether that allegation is enough to trigger Section 11.
According to Omnicare, for the investors to have a claim under Section 11, they have to allege that Omnicare didn’t believe the statement when it was made. Otherwise, companies could be held liable for statements of opinion that turn out later not to be true. Two circuit courts have taken that view.
But in this case, the Sixth Circuit took a different approach, one that makes it easier for investors to file a Section 11 claim. That court reasoned that Section 11 is a “strict liability” statute where the state of mind of company officials isn’t relevant, so it’s sufficient to allege that the opinion was false, regardless of whether the company knew at the time it was false. That’s the ruling the investors in this case are asking the Supreme Court to uphold.
In an amicus brief, the Obama Administration takes a middle ground, in which the company isn’t held liable only because it expressed an opinion that turned out not to be true. The Administration argues that a statement of opinion is actionable under Section 11 if: (1) the company didn’t believe it at the time (which both parties in this case agree on), or (2) there was no reasonable basis for the opinion at the time, even if it was sincerely held (which Omnicare disagrees with).
Any ruling by the Roberts Court should keep in mind that Congress enacted Section 11 to encourage maximum disclosure by companies making a public offering. After all, people associated with the company know far more about the business than potential investors could ever know, and Section 11 was intended to dissuade corporations from tricking investors.
Just as the Lochner case defined the Supreme Court a century ago as it turned conservative economic policies into constitutional dogma, America finds itself living through the Citizens United era, where the Court again routinely rules in favor of corporate and other powerful interests. By the end of June, we will know if the current term will have been as damaging to Americans’ fundamental rights as recent terms have been.
People For the American Way is launching a Spanish-language radio ad today challenging North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis and his extreme stances on education, healthcare, and tax breaks for the rich. The ad will air starting today in Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh.
“Thom Tillis has pushed an extreme agenda throughout his career,” said Randy Borntrager of People For the American Way. “He’s given tax breaks to the most privileged of our society while raising taxes on middle class families, and wants to roll back critical health care protections for families. Thom Tillis’ dangerous agenda is too extreme and Latino voters deserve to know what is at stake this election.”
The ad is the latest in PFAW’s campaign to connect with Latino voters in key states, exposing the extreme views of GOP candidates. (An English translation of the ad is available below. You can hear an English version of the ad here.)
ROSA: Como mamá, como mujer, como Hispana,
yo no apoyo al republicano Thom Tillis.
Y no lo haré ¡nunca!
Porque jamás apoyaré a una persona que recorta los fondos públicos a la educación y reduce el gasto social en salud.
¡¿Pues quién se cree este señor?!
Es obvio que no entiende, ni valora, la importancia de la educación, y no apoya el futuro de nuestros hijos.
¡Pero eso sí! Apoya los recortes en impuestos para yates y aviones de los ricos.
Thom Tillis, ¡por favor!
Hay que ordenar sus prioridades.
Además, quiere quitarle el seguro médico a quienes lo tienen.
El seguro médico que yo ¡y SIETE MILLONES de norteamericanos! por fin tenemos, y que nos protege a nosotras y a nuestra familia.
Carolina del Norte es nuestro hogar.
Y el republicano Thom Tillis está en contra de todo lo que es importante para las familias Hispanas. Empezando por un mejor futuro para nuestros hijos.
Y si él está en contra de eso, yo estoy en contra de él.
¡Así de fácil!
Este mensaje es pagado por People For the American Way, (www.pfaw.org) y no está autorizado por ningún candidato o comité de candidato. People For the American Way es responsable por el contenido de este anuncio.
ROSA: As a mom, a woman, a Hispanic, I do not support Republican Thom Tillis.
And I never will.
Because I will never support a person that cuts public education funds and reduces social spending on health.
Who does this gentleman think he is?
It's obvious that he does not understand nor value the importance of education and doesn't support our kids future.
But what does he do? He supports tax breaks for the rich with yachts and airplanes.
Thom Tillis, please!
Set your priorities straight!
Plus, he wants to take away health insurance from those who have it.
The health insurance that I, and seven million Americans, finally have, and that protects us and our families.
Look, North Carolina is our home.
And Republican Thom Tillis is against everything that's important for Hispanic families. Starting with a better future for our kids.
And if he's against that, I'm against him.
As easy as that!
Paid for by People For the American Way (www.pfaw.org) and not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. People For the American Way is responsible for the content of this advertising.
PFAW, a national group protecting civil rights and civil liberties, has worked in multiple local, state, and federal campaigns to engage Latino voters.